By Francesca O’Mahony
This year, the long neglected issue of period poverty in the UK has emerged from the shadows and made its way onto government agendas. But as the UK has been swept into chaos by the coronavirus outbreak, the issue of period poverty has once again been sidelined. But periods don’t stop for pandemics.
In January, the Department of Education launched a scheme to supply free sanitary products to all state schools in England. A month later, the Scottish parliament approved Monica Lennon’s bill to make menstrual items freely available to anyone who needs them, making Scotland the first country in the world to do so.
A survey carried out in 2019 by Plan International UK found that 1 in 10 young women and girls could not afford to buy menstrual products. Since the beginning of the national lockdown period, this figure has risen to 3 in 10. More than half of these women (54%) have been forced to use toilet paper as an alternative. Worse still, 1 in 5 girls have been unable to access toilet paper due to stockpiling. Many have been forced to go without, whilst others have turned to unsafe alternatives which can cause serious physical health risks.
The steady growth of accessibility and affordability of menstrual products in the UK has been severely stunted by lockdown. Financial fallout has pushed many women into positions in which they are no longer able to afford the menstrual products. For those who now exist on the precarious edge of unemployment, grocery bills have had to be cut drastically and it is often menstrual products which are struck from shrinking shopping lists.
Many people rely on school or work to get period products, therefore the sudden closure of public places has disrupted government schemes that offer free sanitary products to those who cannot afford them – an often overlooked side effect of lockdown.
Schools in England have been urged to continue to provide free sanitary products to students during lockdown and pHs Direct (the government’s contractor for the products) has said that they will continue to deliver to schools throughout the crisis. Yet the reality of this is far less simple. Students who are in high-risk categories, or who live in households with those who are, are not able to access these products at their schools due to risk of infection. City Academy Bristol are now delivering sanitary products in food parcels to students eligible for pupil premium – a step that all institutions should be taking in order to protect their students.
The practicalities of accessibility and affordability of sanitary products are not the only obstacles standing in the way of the fight against period poverty during this pandemic. A third and often ignored hurdle contributes to this digression: stigma. Out of the women and girls who reported being unable to access period products since being under lockdown, one third said that they were too embarrassed to seek out free products. Another 30% said that they did not know who to ask.
The shame and stigma that continues to surround menstruation pushes women into dangerous silences, causing them to go without the products that they need. These are unfair sacrifices that women should not have to make simply because of their reproductive biology. Government schemes that supply free sanitary products must be accompanied with timely education on menstruation for everyone, and this pandemic has magnified the need for this more than ever.
The months and years ahead of us are uncertain, and many more women and girls will struggle to access period products because of it. We must commit to ensuring that all those who need it have free access to these essential items at food banks or in food packages. We must commit to upholding schemes that provide access to sanitary products even in this time of global emergency.
The progress made in tackling period poverty cannot be undone by Covid-19. Safe and easy access to period products cannot be an afterthought. Period products are just as essential as toilet paper or hand soap. What makes them different, is that it is female voices asking for them.
Bloody Good Period are looking for donations to support their trust-based “Take What You Need” scheme via a storage facility in Alexandra Palace in an effort to supply sanitary products to those struggling to access them due to low stock levels or financial hardship: https://www.bloodygoodperiod.com/donate.